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Favorite Free Game — #RPGaDay2015, Day 7

Well, if I had been slightly more ambitious, I might have gotten ahead of the curve on this thing by now.  Alas, my weekends are just busy enough with accumulated nonsense that I haven’t managed to do a great deal of writing.  And today doesn’t look to be any better on that count than the last couple of days.

Favorite Free Game

The original intention of this one doesn’t really flip my switches, if indeed we are talking about actual fully playable RPG’s that are completely free.  I’m not sure what actually falls into this category, other than some of the weirder Open Game License products out there on the net, and my general disinterest for the ephemeral nature of some guy’s weird PDF’s is not enough to warrant a very wide selection.

That said, I do have a nomination for such a game, which I will cover at the end of this.

If I expand the definition out to include “Free RPG Products” of some sort or another, I can come up with a clear winner outright.  This comes from the vaguely dubious “Free RPG Day” cohort of products.  I’m not generally a fan of Free RPG Day, since I come from an area where there isn’t any real selection of gaming stores in the first place, and the ones that actually participate in Free RPG Day are a slim number at best.  Where I used to live, the main store that stocked such was run by nattering dipshits who picked over the stock of good products before the public was given access, and they were about the only outlet in roughly a hundred miles in any direction.

While the idea is solid, the practical nature of the promotion leaves a lot to be desired, given the slow death of the local gaming store.  In the mythical heyday of game shops scattered through a region, this would have been the way to garner interest and attract a wide audience.  Instead, we have a mere handful of stores in a large metro area, and nothing in the sticks.  And guess where I ended up landing?

All grousing aside, my broad-based pick for this category is the We Be Goblins series of modules from Paizo.  These are their recent line of Free RPG Day wares, as of the Jade Regent Adventure Path, and they concern the exploits of a handful of Golarion Goblins and their struggles against … well, mostly their own bad tendencies.

Paizo had done previous Free RPG Day modules, most of which were unremarkable.  I remember the Kobold King modules, vaguely, but I never had any opportunity or excuse to run them.

The Goblin series, on the other hand, came into play when I needed a quick series of one-off games for some guests one weekend.  I’d picked up all three as they came out, skimmed the basics, and put them on the shelf.  They’re very simple and straightforward, and the original served as a sort of sideways introduction to the Jade Regent path, as it details one of the important set pieces of the module from a different point of view.

In these modules, the players are given their choice of goblin characters from the Licktoad Tribe.  (This is as awful and descriptive as you would expect.)  The opening of the module has them competing for favor from the Goblin King (in a series of weirdly brutal games) before heading off to deal with a threat to the tribe.  (Actually, they’re sent off to steal some fireworks, only to accidentally deal with a threat to the tribe.  Such are goblin adventures.)

The four goblin PC’s are terrible creatures, in keeping with the longstanding portrayal of these creatures in the Pathfinder game.  They’re to be played for brutal and comedic effect, which my players readily picked up.  As the adventure unfolded, they pushed each other to more horrible feats of daring, just for the sake of “being as goblin as possible” in the game.

Each of the three modules build on the previous, even though they’re largely considered single session distractions.  By the time the third one starts, the characters are heading their own tribe, with all that implies.  Paizo even put out miniatures for the characters in one of their blind pack releases.  This has the weird effect not only of making these figures more expensive than goblins would normally rate, but their pig animal companion rates the highest price around for a farm animal miniature.

In short, these modules are great, and it’s worth the time to seek them out.

Insofar as the actual free RPG product that I referenced above, this is a bit of a grey area that I’ve heard people bitch about a little while back.

The background on this is that a professional game designer got it in his mind to work up a fan project that he had been monkeying around with in his spare time.  Being a known quantity in the industry, he laid out and built a solidly publishable product as a fan work and posted it on his website.  Since he wasn’t charging for the game, he let it sit without seeking the rights and permissions.

The problem came in with the fact that he submitted it for consideration at the Ennie Awards.  Since it wasn’t any sort of official game, unlicensed and outside of the interest of the trademark holders, the internet blew back on the writer because it was somehow a ripoff of intellectual property.  In the ensuing firestorm, the creator had to delete it from his website and essentially go into hiding.  It wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up getting a lawsuit along the way.

Part of me can see the indignation, but the reaction was well into the shrill and nasty end of the spectrum for a piece of fan-created work.  There was no profit, and had it not pissed off people voting on industry awards (the fan awards, if we want to be honest about things; none of this nonsense was due to the Origin Awards), it would still be up for general download and perusal.

The game I’m talking about is the Mass Effect Fate RPG, which was one of the best uses of the Fate OGL that I’ve seen.  Given that the original CRPG game is a gestalt of a dozen recognizable science fiction properties (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Alien, to name a couple easy examples), screaming “ripoff” to the winds seems a tad ironic to my ears.  I have my own copy of the free PDF, and when opportunity affords, I intend to sit down and make use of this particular free product, even in the face of collective indignation.

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Most Recent RPG Played — #RPGaDay2015, Day 6

Sadly, this particular day is the easiest entry in the whole schema thus far.  Most of this has to do with the fact that I’ve been languishing in something of a limbo since I moved, stranded without any semblance of a solid gaming group as I settle into the new house.  Granted, the old group that I had held together for several years finally started drifting apart, so I was going to be faced with this dilemma anyway.  This sort of thing seems to happen on a periodic basis, just because people tend to shift in and out based on work and school, but it doesn’t make regular groups any easier to keep solid.

As such, instead of the two to four groups I used to run with in a given week, I’m down to one.  Occasionally, we’ll get a second session in, for a different game, but it’s not terribly consistent.

Most Recent RPG Played

Oddly, this happens to be for a game that I hadn’t been terribly interested in, initially.  One of our crew picked up the latest iteration of Outbreak: Undead last year at Gen Con, the stand-alone book for Outbreak Deep Space.  He tends to be a fan of zombie games in general, with a prodigious All Flesh Must Be Eaten collection (one of the few systems that most people own more of than I do) and a scattering of others.

I should note that the new Outbreak edition is coming out shortly, with Pandemic Organized Play system.  It’s a bit like the old Infiniverse newsletters that WEG used to do for Torg, with some interesting tweaks.  The new edition looks amazing, with a lot of solid refinements that will move the game forward nicely.

Anyway, Outbreak Deep Space is a fascinating system, being as I was largely unfamiliar with anything of the original system in the first place.  It uses a percentile system, which is nothing unusual in its own right, but it really starts to get innovative with the Descriptor system.  Descriptors run along the same lines as Tags in Fate, where certain qualities of a person’s equipment or background can come into play in different ways.

Consider a character that has spent time in the military.  Along their career progression, they’ve picked up some bits of knowledge about firearms, the ability to weather harsh conditions, and a certain amount of tactical knowledge.  In play, the character can draw on certain Descriptors to help them in other tasks.  The firearms knowledge, for example, can be used as a static value that can add to their actual shooting skill, as well as rolls to recognize certain models of pistol or rolls to effect repairs to their weaponry.  The Descriptors aren’t tied to a specific roll, instead being able to be used in relevant situations.

Being a zombie game, at its heart, there is a lot of focus on certain tactical decisions within the game, such as how well the characters equip themselves and what sort of strongholds they employ to gain some measure of safety against the undead hordes.  In space, this comes in the form of the starships that come into play, which can serve as more broadly universal facilities than buildings might in a normal, contemporary Outbreak game.

There are some rough edges to this edition, to be sure, but there seems to be some movement toward a revision and update of this edition, moving toward more setting specific game lines.  (These are the things you learn when you can actually track down and bend the ear of the designer themselves.)

The other games that I’ve been involved with lately (though not as recently as the Outbreak game) are Star Wars by Fantasy Flight and Pathfinder.  We’ve sort of rolled a lot of the different aspects of the FFG line of games into one central whole, with my character, a Falleen Jedi, alongside an Ewok marauder and a murderbot.  There’s a lot of Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion aspects being bandied about, making the game a proper gestalt.  Eventually, I would love to see a comprehensive edition of this game that incorporates all three game lines into a single line, but I can understand why they split it into separate books.  If nothing else, the Jedi rules needed more time to distill and tweak.  They’re easily the largest headache for any designer.

Somewhere, it has been said that the ultimate purpose of all role-playing games and systems is to be able to create Jedi within the rules.  I can’t argue this.  As such, when it’s part of the oblique purpose, you have to be able to do it correctly in the end result.

I’ve also had occasion to play Pathfinder, but that’s less of a revelation and more of an admission that I still game with normal gamers here and there.  I’m hoping there will be opportunity for a larger, more dedicated game to be run (one put together and run by someone else for a change, I would hope), but that’s hinging on greater logistics than I can wield at the moment.  Too many balls in the air and all that implies.

Going forward, the games I would love to be able to play occupy a much more fanciful niche.  I’d like to see a longer, more involved game with the Unisystem rules, like Conspiracy X or possibly All Flesh Must Be Eaten perhaps.  The few times I’ve sat down to play Unisystem, I’ve enjoyed it, but they’ve been few and far between.  There’s also the Cipher System, which includes Numenera and The Strange, neither of which I’ve been able to find in any of my gaming groups.

And finally, I’ve been looking to some future point where I might be able to either run or play something using one of Green Ronin’s non-D20 systems, either AGE System or Chronicle System, which run Dragon Age and Song of Ice and Fire, respectively.  I’ve run a couple of sessions with ASoIaF, here and there, and I’ve liked everything about it, but all of the sessions have been distressingly short-lived.  The backstory and world-building that the game implies have been spectacularly solid in the sessions I’ve run, but nothing ever lasts beyond a couple of sessions, for one reason or another.

Some thoughts on world design, rather than non-gaming commentary

In theory, this blog is supposed to be about games and stuff.  Instead, I’ve been on a number of weird tangents of late, some of which are only obliquely related to the topic at hand.  Sadly, Mormons and Molesters happened to take up my actual 100th post, and it isn’t even a Dogs in the Vineyard module series.

So, yeah.  In reading through some of Gregory’s posts of late (I would link, but I’ve also made it a point to link to his blog in every single recent entry; I feel like a bit of a stalker these days), I happened upon an entry where he talked briefly about his general distaste for Halflings and Gnomes.  This is something that I’ve dealt with in my own games, off and on over the years, and it was interesting to hear someone else devote words to the problematic nature of fantasy races.

… someone that isn’t John Wick, obviously.

For me, concision is a necessary part of any game that I run.  I don’t like offering too many options to my players, if I can help it, since the embarrassment of riches tends to confound people when they’re first sitting down at the table.  If there’s 30 different races, with 40 different character classes, an abundance of equipment options and a myriad of feats to shop through, there’s going to be an immediate vapor lock unless the player already knows what they want to do.  If any of their choices come in conflict with something that someone else wants to do, it continues to go downhill from there.  A lot of the time, it can go smoothly and even out in play, but I can point to a dozen different times when things only got worse in the course of a campaign.

One time, when I ran Star Wars, the character options were restricted to what they could do as Stormtroopers.  This is one of those games which the players still talk fondly of, nearly ten years gone.  Another game had them building out SWAT Team members in Dade County Florida.  There was a specific focus, and it worked out very well.  They had limits that they could work within, and by exploring these limits, the characters were some of the best they had made.

And when I talk about Pathfinder-styled fantasy (because, let’s face it, it isn’t terribly representative of most fantasy novels in the genre), I like to keep the options somewhat limited.  There’s a laziness to many role-players, where they are content to hand-wave their character backgrounds into the ‘we met in a bar’ chestnut.  Oh, sure.  The elves hate the dwarves, and no one assembled likes orcs in the slightest, but for the sake of playing this game, we’ll assume that they all get along just fine.  More often than not, these characters have no reason to get along together, and the act of blithely ignoring this aspect of the game becomes a ludicrous endeavor as soon as anyone tries to role-play their character in the slightest.

In play, this often meant that I largely removed Gnomes and Halflings from being able to be played in the slightest.  In the past, this wasn’t even a consideration, since there were many campaigns where the entire group was made up of Elves of one sort or another.  My reasoning then was simply that I didn’t like the races in general, but over time I came to realize that they honestly didn’t fit into the world that I had created.  These days, I recognize that Halflings owe far too much to their Tolkien roots to sit comfortably with me, and outside of being allegorical Britons, I couldn’t see how they made any sense to the somewhat darker worlds that I had put together.  Gnomes … yeah.  They were worse.

Fast forward to the game I ran while I was living abroad.

I had been reading quite a bit of the Eberron setting books at the time, and I was fascinated by the governing precept that it was supposed to be a high action, pulp setting that was utterly compatible with standard D&D 3.5 (mainly so it would help sell its parent line of books).  There wasn’t a lot of standard fantasy in Eberron, as it cleaved more closely to action tropes and steampunk sensibilities, but it tweaked itself to be able to accommodate.

In the mean time, my players wanted some sort of high action game of their own, and I found myself sick to death of the normal experience.  I suppose this is what happens when you spend too much time behind the screen.  This is about the same time I first conceived of the Stormtrooper game to avoid the bog-standard ‘rag-tag band of misfits’ that I had seen over and over again.

When I sat down to design a setting for the game, I did so with the governing thought of defying expectations.  If these players were looking for scholarly elves in high towers of sorcery, I wanted to turn that around.  If their idea of dwarves was subterranean miners with axes and beards, I wanted to build something as far from that as I could.  But in the mean time, I let them build their characters as they saw fit.  After all, I wanted them to be able to hold to their expectations as much as they wanted.  The stronger such things were, the more interesting the reveal would be.  They built out their characters without any assumption of what I was planning.

The basic idea for the game was that the characters were members of an expeditionary force sent to re-establish some vaguely mythical trade route to a southern continent.  This allowed them the comfort of familiar character builds even as they became the strangers in a strange land.  Naturally, this lasted until such time as they were shipwrecked and had to contend with the savagery and isolation of a lost continent.

I had worked together a fairly intricate history for the continent in question, casting it more along the lines of a sort of Thai or Indian motif of lost ruins and ancient civilizations.  Back in high school and early college, I had grown enamored of the Yuan-Ti as a campaign-centered source of villainy, so I followed the logical threads of an ancient serpent kingdom from the mists of time for this new game.  (This also allowed me to put together some truly wonderful source material, including some of the current sourcebooks from Wizards and a number of third party offerings.)  I wanted to include a heavy psionic component, using Bruce Cordell’s various supplements of the era, and I had in mind to cast everything in a civilization that had rebuilt from the ashes of this long-dead empire.

In the end, I set most of the post-collapse culture as being directly based on the Yuan-Ti and their machinations.  This meant delving into the alchemical basis of the race itself.  (For those unfamiliar with it, there’s an old article that first appeared in Dragon Magazine about 25 years back, postulating the idea of Yuan-Ti creating an alchemical means to transform people into breeding stock.)  In the process, I decided that the Gnomes and Halflings could have been the product of a similar mutagenic ritual, one that split them off from their genetic forebears – respectively, the Dwarves and Elves of a standard Western Fantasy game.

Naturally, the different races rose up and overthrew the Yuan-Ti empire at some point.  And of course, they weren’t able to wholly eradicate all of the influence of their hated masters, else there wouldn’t be any interesting hooks.  There was a brief period of peace, when the four races lived in relative harmony and built a new society in the aftermath of the lost empire.  I say four because the humans became something of an outcast race, due to their implied collusion with the Yuan-Ti masters.  (For my own mythology, I kept them as being breed stock, through the graces of alchemy.  Yuan-Ti could still breed true with their own kind, but they favored fresh genetic lines.)

At some point in the post-empire history, agents of the Yuan-Ti fomented war between the Dwarves and the Elves, one that largely destroyed the Elven civilization.  The Dwarves left the remnants of the Elven nation, retreated to the coasts and built great cities of geomantic power and majesty.  In this world, they were the masters of an extremely precise form of hermetic magic that crossed over into fantasy physics.  The Elves, when their civilization was at its height, were more inclined toward artistic and chaotic forms of magic.

The Halflings, once they had been freed from their bondage under the Yuan-Ti, had retreated to the high mountains to live in relative seclusion.  The Gnomes continued secret contact with the mummified Yuan-Ti remnants, acting under the auspices of their dead masters.  They made their home deep beneath the earth, receding into myth as the centuries passed.  And the servitor races of the Yuan-Ti, the degenerate LIzardmen and Troglodytes, dwelt on the fringes of the different societies, content to live as they had in relative barbarism.

Being a game in D&D 3.5, I built the races out according to Favored Class ideas.  This pushed Dwarves into being cast as Wizards, Elves as Barbarians, Halflings as Monks and Gnomes as Necromancers.  (This last one was a bit of a headache, but I believe there was a Necromancer class in one of the side books.  It didn’t particularly matter, as I wasn’t figuring to ever let one show up as a Player Character.)  Each race also had its own favored material, where most of the armor and weapons were cast in that particular motif.  Elves had once used glass (and it would show up as remnants of the older civilization), but in the present, they used living wood as the basis for their weapons and armor.  The Dwarves, logically, were prone to using metal of a given sort.  Halflings had perfected a sort of magically hardened ceramic, and the Gnomes used bone of a similar cast.

I spent a lot of time on the world, to the point that I would occasionally run the campaign as a fresh idea to new groups for various purposes.  What was most interesting was that Paizo’s Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path ran through a lot of weirdly parallel ideas, to the point that I doubt I will ever try to publish this setting.  It’s a little disheartening, but at the end of the day, I can point to things in their game design that I feel I could have done better.

So I have that going for me.  Which is nice.

How I Spent My Gen Con Vacation

Drinking with Game Designers.  Full stop.

Yeah, that’s a piss-poor entry, even my by admittedly loose standards.  Let me see…

Let’s go with a loose, overall set of impressions, shall we?  This way, I can cover some ground of what the various game publishers have been doing, and in the process, I can talk about things as they come up.  Have no expectations about the content or quality, and you shall be less disappointed than otherwise.

First off, the con was slammed.  The press release from Peter Adkison (nice guy, met him once, and he also happened to attend my friends’ wedding) that immediately followed said that it was up 10% from last year and has more than doubled over the past five years.  It was wall-to-wall people, everywhere you looked, and yet, I was still able to hook up with many old friends from years before, just happening past in the aisles.  The con personnel are getting crowd control well in hand, and even picking up my badge from the Will Call line took no time at all.

What’s more interesting is that Paizo is starting to get a handle on how popular their booth is, seeing as they always used to run out of their pins within a couple of hours of the exhibitor hall opening.  This year was literally the first time I have ever been able to pick up all four days’ worth of commemorative pins.  (Don’t ask me why this matters to me; I don’t have any real answer.)  They had to run a line outside of the hall, out in the main corridor, but when I wandered in to look at some of the years’ merch, it moved pretty fast, all things considered.  I didn’t go at exactly peak times, but there were plenty of people waiting with me, and it only took twenty minutes, all told.

And while I love Paizo dearly, they still have occasion to let a mistake past, despite otherwise having raised the bar to nigh insurmountable levels for most other publishers.  It’s oddly amusing to see this happen, precisely because they hold themselves to such standards.  This year’s new hardcover release was the the Advanced Class Guide, where they meld the basic classes into what amounts to being hybrid classes.  It’s a nifty book, well worth the time and money (this is where I could bitch about how one should only pick up a book of theirs if it’s Advanced, while carefully steering clear of the Ultimate ones; it’s a topic for another time), but the first print run is listed as being an Adventure Path on the cover.  It’s a simple logo switch that happened some time in production, but there it is.  The second print run will be rid of the offending text, so snatch up your ‘collectible’ copies while you can.

Competing with Paizo for the long lines is Fantasy Flight.  Unlike Paizo, they couldn’t route people out into the outer corridor, so they had people snaking around their booth and demo area for most of the con.  They managed to get people through that line pretty quickly, assisted by a ‘get to know the people in line with you’ card game.  In theory, there was a prize for managing to collect the right base of cards, but that was well beyond the ten or twelve people we were in line with.

I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the booth at Fantasy Flight, since I had a singular mission, but they did come out with a number of new minis for the X-Wing game, a new fleet tactical game for Star Wars and the new edition of Dark Heresy.  I might have considered a YT-2400 – I’ve always had a soft spot for Dash Rendar’s Outrider and we managed to make it our main ship in Edge – but they were already sold out by the time I got to the line.  (The same holds true for AEG’s Limited Edition wooden box release of Doomtown.  I want badly to get hold of the game, but not at the original price of $120, let alone the notably multiplied eBay markups.)

The Beta for Force and Destiny is a fine thing, as it captures all of the flavor and variance of the old Knights of the Old Republic video game, between the character careers and the lightsaber modifications.  I’m sure that some new stuff will be thrown in for the final edition, being that this is merely the Beta, but what I have in front of me is enough that I’m already jonesing for a proper game to go.

I picked up my backer copy of Primeval Thule at the booth.  They made a couple of interesting design choices in the book, just from my initial perusal.  Since they managed to get the support for three different editions of the damned thing, between 13th Age, Pathfinder and 4e, they had to make some editing decisions in the process.  What this boiled down to was a choice to make an appendix that the relevant parts of the book referred back to in-text.  This way, only one part of the book needed to be changed between the editions.  I’m still debating if this was an elegant or lazy way of doing things.  And in doing so, I’m sort of leaning toward elegant, just on the basis of the novelty of it all.  We shall see if this judgment holds.

They did commit a cardinal sin with the book, however, by including in-text adventures.  Over the years, I’ve found that I would rather have such things appear as web enhancements, like D&D 3.5 did with many of their products.  (A practice that I feel started with Deadlands, back in the day.)  Rather than waste valuable pages on an adventure that may only be run once, if at all, I would much rather have the illustrative introductory adventure show up in some other form, when I’m paying for the book to have as much reference material as physically possible.

… and just like that, I find myself standing at the brink of a Wick hole.

This is a lot of the problem I’m finding I have with Wicked Fantasy, overall.  There’s a lot of wasted space in the book that might have been used for actual interesting things.  I don’t need to know what the Orkish word for blood is.  I want to know what sort of vaguely Klingon-inspired weapon they’re going to use to spill it.  What do their villages and family units look like?  What is it about this world that makes these orks darker and edgier and more dangerous than the orcs of pretty much every other D&D game?  Instead, we get … words … about words.  There are between fifty and seventy wasted pages of bad fanfic that serves no concrete purpose and does nothing to illuminate the world.  The page count on this idiot book could have been cut in half, and I would have come out better for it.

Man, I hate that book.  I would burn the damned thing, if that didn’t go farther to illustrate the wasted money.

Anyway, my point remains.  If you’re going to insist on an adventure to properly introduce a game, then it shouldn’t have to take up real estate in the book itself.  Especially not in this day and age, when a good portion of book sales seems to come in the form of digital copies anyway.  It’s almost enough to make me want to invest in a tablet PC to be able to carry even more reference material wherever I go.

I invested heavily in Fate books, finishing out my Dresden Files collection (of two books; I know…) and picking up a copy of Fate Core.  My main bill at the IPR booth was acquiring materia for other people, including a copy of Tenra Bansho Zero for one of the guys.  In doing so, I accidentally ran into Andy Kitkowski, the translator for TBZ and the upcoming Ryuutama.  He had come back from Nihon for the sake of Gen Con, dragging along Atsuhiro Okada, the actual writer and designer for Ryuutama.  It was an interesting chance meeting, and I took the opportunity to have him sign a couple of the post card GM handouts for me.  Alas, since Ryuutama has yet to hit print, there was nothing for me to have Okada sign, alas.

The final note, as I’ve largely lost the thread of where I was going when I started this post, was that I saw something truly fascinating at the greater DriveThru booth.  As has become usual for White Wolf/Onyx Path, there was no actual product of any weight to be had at the booth.  It’s Print on Demand and digital distribution, after all, why bother with trying to sell it at the convention?  They did have some product on display, but very little of it seemed available to sell.  One thing, in particular, did catch my eye, however.

And this is so much gaming esoterica, I grant.  It was a copy of the oft-lamented BESM 3rd Edition, the final product of Guardians of Order, after the weird horror that was the Game of Thrones RPG that everyone seemed to have tried to buy yet no one ever ran.  BESM 3rd was the full sized red cover version of the rules that somehow ended up in the hands of White Wolf for distribution.  It came out in January of 2007, got snatched up by the fan base and has never been seen since.  Naturally, it’s still ridiculously expensive (to the point that a copy of the original printing, even this long out of print, is only about twice as much), but it’s once again available.

All in all, there was a lot more that passed outside of my perception at the convention, since I had specific goals and aspirations.  There were events for D&D 5th that I blithely ignored, there were new products from publishers I have nothing to do with, and there were games running that I didn’t attend.  But the things I saw were worth my time, and some of them will even merit further study in future entries.

Rebuilding the Skinsaw Murders, Part 2

Now that we know what went wrong with the plotline of Skinsaw, we can start trying to fix it.

One of the first parts that needs to be addressed is Aldern Foxglove himself, as this is something that needs to be built into the plot of the previous module.  The cowardly and worthless parts of his character should pretty much be excised, as they don’t do any real justice to the plot and serve to weaken a lot of the ideas behind the module.

The characters meet him at the very beginning of Burnt Offerings, when they have to rescue him from a rampaging goblin that has started slicing up his hunting dog.  I’d keep a lot of this encounter intact, but I’d make sure that there were some troubling details included in the scene, to hint at the murderous aspects of the man they’d come to identify as a serial killer a couple of levels later.  Have the characters hear the yelping of his dog as it’s being killed off, and when the characters come running, they have to fend off the goblin champion as it charges the grieving Foxglove who’s preoccupied with his dead pet.  When rescued, he effusively thanks the characters for their assistance and promises to make it up to them later.  They assume that the blood spattered on his clothes is from standing near when his dog was sliced up, but later they find the corpses of several goblins that someone savagely killed with what appears to be a war razor…  And during the boar hunt, he works on one of the characters with his obsessive angles, but they also notice that he’s a bit too interested in the gorier parts of the kill.

Most of the idea here is to keep the character interaction intact, while playing up the disturbing aspects of a serial killer’s personality.  This needs to serve as foreshadowing for the character, so that when it’s revealed that he’s the one behind all the murders, it all makes sense.

The next most important NPC for the module is Sheriff Hemlock.  His willingness to believe the characters flies in the face of any serious logic, but he needs to remain a solid ally of the characters nonetheless, as they will have to depend on him throughout the module.  It’s not hard to find similar characters in TV and literature, but the Sheriff has to be upfront with the characters that they’re prime suspects in this entire matter.  He’s not willing to accuse them outright, but he needs to keep them around while he investigates the murders that have started.  Once he’s cleared them from being directly connected, then he will have to rely on them to help him.

This is where the plot of the module has to start being moved around.  None of the specific encounter CR’s matter in this, since there will be a variance of difficulty anyway.  When you consider the death trap that was the original end of the module, it’s easy to simply shrug and re-order everything.

The first consideration in this sequence is the idea of putting the haunted house scenario last.  It’s the most powerful and interesting part of the module as a whole, and this is what the adventure needs to have as an ending.  The module has to end as the house crumbles into the sea, and with it the secrets of a tormented family.  Next, there’s the weirdly untouched connections between the sawmills and the scarecrows.  These can naturally lead from one to another, as long as there’s some logic to thread them together.  All that’s left figuring out what to do with the sanitarium.

All right.  So the Sheriff has to remain an ally, but the characters need to be isolated from what’s going on so as to better clear their names from being connected with the murders.  The easy way to do this is to borrow from a minor plot element from Ghostbusters II.  When the plot has been unraveled in that movie, the main characters show up at the Mayor’s mansion, forecasting dire warnings of what’s about to happen.  The Mayor doesn’t want to listen, so his assistant takes it upon himself to lock the Ghostbusters up in an asylum to keep them from going to the press.  This is as elegant a solution as anything.

If one of the Sheriff’s chief deputies takes it upon himself to ‘move the prisoners’ to the sanitarium outside of town, the dire plots of that place can unfold around the characters.  All it takes is a competent Rogue to slip out of the confines of a locked ward, and the characters can wander around as they see fit, running encounters with the ‘necromancer in the basement’, the tiefling orderlies, and the strange babbling fellow that is locked in the isolated ward.  Naturally, he won’t reveal anything about Foxglove Manor (as this would shortcut the entire adventure), but he can lay enough clues about the Skinsaw Man and the Brotherhood of Seven that will become relevant later.

Once the Sheriff arrives to set them free, they will have been cleared of the murders that took place out at the barn outside of town, and they weren’t connected with the ones that took place the previous night at the sawmill, since they were safely locked up at the sanitarium.  The Sheriff wants to keep a couple of deputies with the characters for a while anyway, but this is as much for their own safety as to watch them.  The Sheriff is already overwhelmed by the current events, dropping a number of red herrings (new fears about goblins, strange lights offshore, an old drunk that is sleeping off a rant about ‘walking scarecrows’, etc.) along with the one interesting detail.

Investigating the sawmill will yield the same litany of clues as it originally did, but there will be a notation in the ledgers about trade with the sawmill in Magnimar.  This will lead the characters to the Brotherhood of Seven (or the Skinsaw Cult, as you see fit to call them), with the connected trade and mysterious dealings.  Since they would have heard about them from the sanitarium adventure, it’s a direct link.  There can also be a bit of expanded lore with the cult itself, noting that devotees of the Skinsaw Cult are drawn to sawmills or something similar.

The revelations at the sawmill in Magnimar will lead them straight to Xanesha’s lair, where they will confront the weird flesh golem scarecrow.  This will connect with the farmer’s tales, which is more or less just foreshadowing, as the characters passed through those farmlands on their way to Magnimar in the first place.  The fight in the belltower will take place against the first version of Xanesha (simply because it’s that much more of an accomplishment), but they will have been warned by either Ironbriar (the corrupt justice) or someone less connected with the Skinsaw Men about how to deal with her.  The effective way will be to lure her into the interior and drop a bell on her.  (For my own purposes, I’d completely nix the Faceless Stalkers, as they generally add nothing to the adventure and make this whole sequence that much more difficult.)

Between what they learn at the sawmill and salvage from the wreckage of Xanesha’s lair, they’re led back to Foxglove Manor, as it’s directly connected to both.  On the way back, they happen into the fields of horror with the scarecrow murders, resolving that as a sort of waypoint scenario.  (There’s also the possibility of returning to Sandpoint first, at which point the risen victims will shamble forth as ghouls for another mini-scenario.  This is a suggestion that gets floated in the Anniversary Edition, and it’s too good to not use in some way.)

Then finally, it’s on to Foxglove Manor and all the horrors therein.

The townhouse in Magnimar doesn’t add much in this rebuild, so I’m not sure if I would include it or modify it to make more sense in the next module.  There’s a single encounter with Faceless Stalkers and a hidden stash of treasure, but neither of these does much to move the plot along in the re-ordering.  The ledger that draws the group to the sawmill is no longer necessary, which makes this entire locale somewhat obsolete.

I think that covers the bases adequately enough, removing some of the weird aspects of the module flow.  If nothing else, it fixes the issues that I had with the direction of the plot, and hopefully, it draws things together in a more or less organic fashion.  I guess I’ll see what the next module offers, to see if there are additional elements that need to be illuminated.  I don’t recall it having the same weird problems, but we’ll find out, eh?

Rebuilding the Skinsaw Murders

As I’ve said, I really like a lot of things about The Rise of the Runelords.  I like the way the path starts, with small town people that have to come to grips with a larger outside world.  In particular, this works on number of levels, introducing the world to the players even as it’s being revealed to the characters.  I like the sort of ‘everyday horror’ that comes into the path as the plots are slowly brought to light.  Few groups give that much consideration to goblins, as they’d worn down over the years to be little more than bundles of minor experience that were necessary for the slow and careful climb out of 1st level.  And I absolutely love the serial killer / haunted house / cult of murder plots woven through The Skinsaw Murders.

They just don’t make a lot of sense, really.  Especially not in the order that they’re presented in.

Looking it all over, I’m not really sure where the blame for this lies.  I have the feeling that Richard Pett’s decision to break the module’s plot up into separate and discrete segments didn’t help, but I think the blame lies slightly closer to home with the vague indifference that most GM’s tend to put on actual plot development.

And I’ll be the first to say that I’ve done this.  And gods know, the GM that ran Runelords for us certainly did.  To say that he put in a half-assed effort on a number of aspects of the series would be to put it mildly.  Some times, he didn’t do much more than simply skim the relevant parts of the module in order to throw dice.  It’s what happens.  None of this excuses the fact that there needs to be some serious work done on the module to make it good.  And it honestly surprises me that no one at Paizo thought to re-order or revise the module when it came up to be printed for the 5th Anniversary hardcover.  I’m guessing that there wasn’t enough truly critical feedback that addressed this, else they might have thought to do so.

That’s the thing, though.  Most GM’s are content to simply point the characters at the next obstacle, no matter how poorly thought out the plot that led there happens to be.  If nothing else, there’s the assumption that the module writer has done most of the heavy lifting for them already, so they can simply read the boxed text and toss dice.  And that seriously starts to fall apart with some of the problems that are inherent in Skinsaw.

So let’s take a look at the problems we’ve already looked at for this module.

First, there’s a problematic character shift with the Skinsaw Man himself, Aldern Foxglove.  The backstory has him murdering his wife through the driving forces of Lust, Envy and Wrath, all of which are fed by the corrupting influence of the ancestral manor that he’s been trying to restore.  And yet, when he shows up in Sandpoint, it’s because he’s a raving coward that can’t bear to go back to his haunted house.  The intro text talks about his streak of violence, but he shrinks away from a rampaging goblin and watches it kill his hunting dog.

Next, we have the Sheriff, who is either wildly corrupt or ravingly incompetent, depending on which way you want to look at it.  I know that his actions are predicated on the idea that the player characters are the heroes of the module and above reproach in all things, but it makes less than no sense.  And it doesn’t help that he failed to get anything useful out of one of the suspects and has to rely on the characters to do his work for him.  The PC’s are literally the ‘meddling kids’ in this equation, and everyone’s okay with it.  When the Skinsaw Man leaves notes to the effect that he’s only following the orders of one of the characters, that should be enough to raise a couple of red flags on the spot.  But it doesn’t.

Next, we have the interesting possibilities with the sanitarium, most of which arises from the inclusion of extra material brought into the Anniversary Edition.  As written, the module would unfold much the same way that it did in the original publication, and there’s an entire ‘necromancer in the basement’ subplot that virtually demands further examination.  And something needs to be done with the ordering of this part anyway, given that the logical outcome of the visit to the sanitarium has the characters ready to set out for the haunted house immediately.  The module wants to send them out into the scarecrow fields before they’re allowed to look into actually dealing with the serial killer.

The plot then sets the characters at the haunted house itself.  This isn’t a problem, but my feeling is that the creepy decaying manor should be the final act of the module, rather than the middle.  It’s a vast, sprawling dungeon complex with mystery and haunts and a legacy of evil that covers multiple generation.  What follows it are essentially three rather basic encounter areas with much less interesting developments.  Yeah, Xanesha (in original form) will slay the adventuring group outright, but she’s not half so plot crucial or interesting as the serial killer himself.

From there, the characters end up in another sawmill, but honestly, it has nothing to do with the sawmill that they started the plot in, so it could have just as easily been a warehouse or similar.  It doesn’t make any relevant sense to have a parallel like this without any actual payoff.  The two sawmills aren’t rivals in any way, no gruesome murders on the premises are able to connect them, and they aren’t even implied to do any business with each other.  The module doesn’t even try to tie the sawmill together the whole ‘saw’ bit with the Skinsaw Man and Cult and Murders.

Similarly, there’s a scarecrow in the lamia’s tower that has literally nothing to do with the scarecrows that form one of the better and more evocative encounters of the middle of the module.  Here’s another chance for something interesting to happen with the thematic content, and it ends up just being a fight on the way to the final battle.

And finally, there’s the final battle.  It’s pointed out that Xanesha’s tower is on the verge of crumbling at any second.  There are bar bets to be won on this basis.  When we played through this final battle, we tried to exploit this idea to bring the tower down on her as a means of defeating the otherwise impossible encounter.  It was only through extensive badgering of the GM that we managed to do anything of the like, and even that was trying to appeal to his experience with Exalted, rather than anything that was built into the text of the adventure.

So where do we go from here?  Excellent question.  Now that I’ve identified the problems, we can start moving parts of the plot around to build something a lot better.

The Final, Fatal Battle of the Skinsaw Murders

For a lot of groups, The Skinsaw Murders ended up being the last module in the series, as the final encounter was enough to destroy most challengers.  The internet, particularly the Paizo forums, are awash with stories of how the Lamia Matriarch was enough to annihilate their PC’s, often without suffering serious damage at their hands.  There were support groups to talk about the kill counts of Xanesha, the Wanton of Nature’s Pagan Forms.

Yeah…  I should just stop right there.  This was another of the writer’s attempts to puff up the name of something beyond what it could reasonably bear.  Much like ‘The Misgivings’, it’s one of those nonsensical bits that never quite worked.  There’s no flow to the nickname, and even if it did roll off the tongue, it doesn’t fit with anything about the character.  Sure, Xanesha does flit around the Magnimar underground to casually sleep with guys in her human form, but that only covers the ‘Wanton’ bit.  She’s not particularly pagan, largely unnatural, and she has exactly two forms that she can shift between.  Whee.

I feel like Peter Serafinowicz’ character from ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy.’  “This is Xanesha.  She’s also known as ‘The Wanton of Nature’s Pagan Forms’.”  “Who calls her that?”  “Herself, mostly.”

Anyway, where was I?

Xanesha holds an interesting place in Pathfinder lore, in that she’s an almost certain kill in her original form in the second module.  It’s so bad that most people consider it a better idea to substitute her sister, the Lamia Matriarch from halfway through the next module, instead, as that would be a marginally more fair fight.  And as it happens, Lucrecia doesn’t have a dopey title that she insists on calling herself.

As originally written, Xanesha is disastrously powerful, well-prepared and has complete tactical superiority.  She’s got a solid repertoire of spells available, high mobility and can answer any threat that comes after her.  All in all, it takes an overprepared part of characters and a bit of GM grace to take her down in her original form, especially when you consider that the party has already faced two fairly difficult combats on the way up the tower.  They revised her down to a much more manageable level with the Anniversary Edition, which is likely the result of player feedback and careful consideration on the part of the Paizo editors.

The original scenario has the characters find enough clues to lead them to an abandoned clock tower beneath an ancient Thassilonian bridge.  The backstory for her character has her sent by Karzoug (the Runelord that the module series generally refers to) personally, with other sisters sent across the breadth of Varisia to continue his bidding.  Her job is to harvest sacrifices for his power, which is generally meaningless at this point in the Adventure Path’s progress.  Her sister shows up in the next module, although her role in Karzoug’s return is just as murky.  (For most intents, the broad scope of the plot doesn’t start to make sense until about Module #4 or thereabouts.)

Once at the clocktower, the characters face off against a powerful flesh golem in the guise of a scarecrow, have a cinematic climb up the winding stair of the crumbling edifice and come face to face with the creature that’s been manipulating a cult of murderous thugs for her own ends.  And in the original version of the adventure, this is where they meet their untimely end.

All Paizo spellcasters have a tactical outlay of spells, with an order for them to be cast.  During the characters’ ascent of the tower, her minions made certain that she was aware of the approaching threat by dropping a massive bronze bell on them, with the hopes of either killing them or driving them away.  When Xanesha hears this, she casts the following spells on herself:  Fly, Mage Armor, Shield, Mirror Image, Haste, and Invisibility.  She’s starting out with a solid 26 AC, and this spell kit bumps that up to 35 AC.  She also drops Silence on a spare piece of wood within her rooftop lair, thereby shutting down any spell support that the party manages to bring with them.  She also activates False Life and casts Divine Favor, which enhances her hilariously powerful spear.  (Because of her weapon focus with the spear, it has a x3 Crit modifier, with a threat range of 19.  If it gave her Reach, it would be all over for anyone who happened by.)  She also has Spell Resistance and a stack of spell-like abilities with DC 20 saves.

Suffice to say, there’s a reason that most parties died to her deadly caress.  She’s a CR 10 creature that is facing 7th level characters.  Her ability to Fly gives her an immediate advantage, the Silence pretty well covers the entire area of the battle and she even goes to the point of casting a Major Image to keep the party off-balance.

The revised version of Xanesha removes almost all of the advantage that she had in the original version, lowering her hit points and armor class as well as taking away all of her spell kit except Invisibility.  She’s still a CR 9 encounter, after the two CR 7 encounters that had to be dealt with on the way up the tower, but in comparison, this is almost a cakewalk.  Also, given the slight power creep in converting characters from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder, I’d have to think that she’s a challenge, but not an unreasonable one.  The original version was just so much death.

I figure I’ll wrap up the rest of The Skinsaw Murders with one more post, but I’m already looking at taking a break from blogging for a little while after next week.  I’m not sure how much of a hiatus I’ll be working with, but next Thursday marks my third full month with this blog, which makes for a clear point to put things on hold.  I’ve been managing to update daily since the middle of March, and by the time next week rolls around, I’ll be able to figure out how much verbiage I’ve put into these updates.  I aim for 1,000 words per post, with unfailing daily updates, so that should put me somewhere above 100,000 words overall.  Not a bad mark to have managed.

In the mean time, I figure I’ll be able to update as I can, but it won’t be a daily thing.  There are too many other things that need my attention at the moment, so this is the gig that has to go to the back burner.  Hopefully, once the real life aspects iron themselves out, I can go back to regular updates.

But that’s not until next week.

Entering the Third Act of the Skinsaw Murders

So, when we last saw our intrepid heroes, they had escaped the ruin of Foxglove Manor (improbably known as ‘The Misgivings by the locals) as it fell in upon itself, breaking into pieces as it fell from the cliff it had so precariously been perched upon, its foul influences now cleansed from the Varisian Coast.

Or at least, that’s how we ended it.

I’ve been wracking my brain in the last day or so, trying to figure out why the writer chose to leave the house more or less intact when the characters finished with the haunting and the ghastly serial killer who had been so fatally warped by its unwholesome influences.  All right, so you have an old manor house filled with a myriad of decay and ruin, that no one in the surrounding area wants anything to do with.  As the characters were to figure out in the process of their adventures in the house (as in, they have to find this out to pick up the next thread of the plot), the last contractors were a cult of murderers that worshiped the god of murder and secrets.

To borrow from Kevin Smith, are these really the guys you want to have plumbing a toilet in your house?

If the house doesn’t crumble into the sea, the characters are sort of stuck with it.  I can’t imagine too many characters that would voluntarily move into a house with such history, unless they’re the kind that is jake with serial killers, the occasional murderous cultist, and a legacy of pain and terror that has been fused into the walls since the death of the original family by misadventure.  Most Good-aligned groups would want to burn the place down, just to be done with the damned thing.  At that point, it’s a better idea to just have the action sequence of fleeing the house as it falls to pieces around the characters, escaping as it finally destroys itself.  At least then, it’s dramatic.

And for me, this is where the adventure should have ended.  I keep going back to this idea, where the confrontation with Aldern Foxglove, the friend and ally established in the first module, is revealed to be the dreaded Skinsaw Man that has been murdering people around Sandpoint.  But it isn’t, and I find that weirdly unsatisfying.

Instead, the characters are drawn to Magnimar, the teeming metropolis to the south, built on the ruins of an ancient Thassilonian city from thousands of years before.  They’ve discovered notes on the Skinsaw Cult that has been the source of Foxglove’s specific murders (he’s been directed to kill particularly Greedy individuals, which feeds the main purposes of the end villain of the Adventure Path), and they’ve got the key to Foxglove’s townhouse in Magnimar, where they can search for more clues on the larger conspiracy.

Following the trail to Magnimar, the characters quickly discover specific notes that will lead them to another sawmill in the area, where payments from Foxglove are apparently dropped off periodically.  (What’s interesting about this part is that there is a single encounter and a single puzzle, but the module sees fit to include a rather detailed map for the GM to use.  I realize that this is for the sake of combat, but even so, this seems fairly extraneous.)  From there, they find themselves at the home of the Brothers of the Seven, also known as the Skinsaw Men.

The cult’s headquarters is a pretty straightforward series of encounters.  It’s a working sawmill, which adds some detail to the events, but it comes down to a room by room dispatching of low-level cultists as the characters look for the man in charge.  Somewhat unusually, the head of the Cult isn’t actually behind the series of murders, as he’s been played as a cat’s paw by another manipulator.  This has the effect of allowing the PC’s to negotiate with the head of a cult of murderous thieves, once they manage to dispel the Charm Person he’s been laboring under.

It’s an interesting idea, but at the end of the day, he’s still a cultist of the god of murder and a corrupted city justice as well.  I’m not really sure why the players are given the option of sparing him.

In some ways, I would love to play the module with wholly Evil characters calling the shots.  There were options for this all through the early parts of Savage Tide, and it seems like the focus of the game would be wildly different with this series, even though it would seem to take a fair amount of jiggering to get the outcomes to make any sense.  With the now-empty manor house and a cult of murderous thugs on your side, the characters would be quickly rising up in the world, I would guess.  It just makes you question why they’re killing off the established villains in the first place.  Is it a case of professional rivalry or something?  Was the Skinsaw Cult encroaching on the home turf of the player characters?

Good ends up being the default setting in these modules, but there are strange edges where it seems like the writers were willing to throw a bone at the occasional Evil character that wandered through.

As it shook out for our group, we actually had two Evil characters as part of the adventuring group by the time they reached the sawmill.  One was the Pride and Lust aspected Sorcerer who’d been driven mad by the revelations of the house and its various haunts.  At this point, I had taken over the character for my own use, not wanting to lose the main operant spellcaster from our regular group.  Another player had built a rogue, who was immediately lost to suicide in the manor, who was then replaced by a wizard.  That player hadn’t made it that week, so the character was more or less being played by another person, who’d decided to play the Evil version.  (When the Wizard’s actual player was in attendance, he ended up playing the Wizard as Evil, so it didn’t really matter.)  And the Ranger was going closer and closer to Evil, simply because he was becoming more intent on his anger issues while he was losing his sense of remorse for the accidental murders he’d committed earlier.

The effect this had was that the various horrific loot that the characters were amassing as a result of fighting a cult of murder wasn’t being thrown away or sold to shopkeepers.  This meant that the various razor-aspected weapons were being used regularly, as were the enchanted masks that highlighted the flow of blood in a living creature.

So, yeah.  There’s a lot of neat toys to be had in this module, but most of it only has utility to the most depraved and antisocial members of a given group.  Good times.

The Misgivings of the Skinsaw Murders

Somewhere, I think there’s a pun or bit of clever wordplay or even an inside joke that explains why Paizo chose to title the ancient Foxglove Manor the way it did.  Calling a house ‘The Misgivings’ is an interesting idea, but it really seems forced, no matter how they pass it off otherwise.  I love the idea of the named manor house, and the concept of the shunned haunted house that the locals whisper various myths and legends about intrigues me.  I’m just not sure that I buy this particular appellation.

Here.  Try it out for yourself:

“I hear there’s some foul happenings up at The Misgivings.”

“According to the farmer, there were strange lights at The Misgivings.”

“And to this day, no one who has ever spent the night at The Misgivings has been heard from again…”

Personally, I can’t take it seriously, as it varies between seeming like the name of an intrusive married couple that tries to throw fancy parties on every occasion, just so they can bring out their fondue pots, or the world’s worst sort of holiday.  “What are you having for Misgiving Dinner?’  “Probably ham.”

And yeah, it’s sort of a petty quibble in the broad scheme of things, compared to some of the other problems I’ve had with the Adventure Path thus far.

As adventures go, however, it’s really pretty good.  This is your standard haunted house scenario, filtered through the D&D or Pathfinder lens, with some fascinating ideas at the core of things.  The history of the house recounts the failed attempts of its founder to ascend to lichdom, only to fail dramatically in the final stage.  This serves to give the house itself the weird powers and locales, explaining away the supernatural effects in the dungeonpunk era that the module was written in.  Any other era of gaming would likely have left the origin of the house’s powers intact and mysterious, rather than trying to make sense of the process required.  I don’t begrudge this, though, as it’s a really neat idea that I’d be tempted to make further use of later.  Namely, the house itself functions as a truly bizarre form of pseudo-lich, with the essence of the aspirant fused into the structure of the house itself and corrupting all that cross its threshold in one way or another.  To be honest, I’m surprised that this didn’t end up back in Carrion Crown, since they’re fond of recycling ideas, and there was an entire module devoted to the idea of liches in general.

With the house as its own distinct entity, Paizo found themselves with a new mechanic (which did show up in Carrion Crown) in the form of Haunts.  Haunts exist as a form of spiritual trap, differing only in the way that they have to be disarmed and dealt with.  Haunts went on to play a huge role in the haunted prison scenario of Harrowstone that opened the Carrion Crown series, and it’s interesting to note that they underwent minimal modification over the years.  A Good-aligned Cleric is still the best way to deal with any of these horrors, and without such, they become extremely dangerous particularly fast.

They’re also very evocative of the haunted house motif, offering a quick and simple method to populate a locale with supernatural effects.  On a meta level, I loved the idea, even if they ended up largely destroying most of the party that went to investigate the horrors of Foxglove Manor.  (See, even there, it would sound pretty ridiculous to term it as ‘The Horrors of the Misgivings.’  It really doesn’t work.)

The haunts work to play out the events that brought the ruin of Foxglove Manor.  One room has the characters reliving the death of the villain’s wife, another sees her in better times as she dances in the parlor, where a third has a long dead murderer contemplating the weight of his actions.  As each image flits past, the characters are forced to play through the sequences that brought the fall of the family, bearing their wounds and horrors as the images work to drive them mad.

These traps were what brought our character party to downfall, as we moved through the decaying halls of the manor house.  The Sorcerer who was consumed with pride and lust was attracted to the haunts that dealt with the death of Foxglove’s wife, some months back.  As each event played out, he was driven progressively closer to madness, as he saw the death of beauty and the betrayal of love.  (The original player was out of the area when these events took place, and this was what made it interesting, as he wouldn’t have bothered to explore the ramifications of the haunts on his character’s psyche.  As it happened, he was actually very irritated that his character might have to experience anything that wasn’t as shallow and superficial as he’d hoped.  He left the group for unrelated reasons, but it ended up being for the best in the long run, really.)  In the end, his mind snapped, and he found himself with a Nick Cave inspired outlook that ‘All beauty must die’ in his madness.

Another character, the erstwhile Rogue that one of our group had recently made up, ended up finding himself utterly overwhelmed by the desperate thoughts that another room evoked, plunging a sharp stake of wood into his throat as a means of suicide.  This was doubly unfortunate, as the character had joined the group for the sake of the expedition to Foxglove Manor, and he managed to live for a single session only.

The Druid became obsessed with the concept of transformation, something that eventually leveled out into being convinced that his true form was an animal form rather than his original human shape.  This persisted all the way through the character, however, so it became less of a derangement than just a defining character trait.

In the end, the scenario details the madness and betrayal that brought the end of the Foxglove family, hearkening back to Poe’s House of Usher as it does so, talking about the decay and mold that persists throughout as symbolic of the decline.  The module provides ways to cleanse the house of the influence of the original master of the house, whose spirit is infused with the very structure of the place, but it misses the obvious mark by having the manor remain intact once it has been exorcised.

For our purposes, once the foul influence had been destroyed, the foundations of the cliffside mansion began to shiver and crumble, as the only motive force that had kept it intact was now gone.  In a mad panic, our characters fled the roaring destruction, emerging into the first light of dawn as the house fell away, breaking on the rocks below as it slid into the sea.

The Second Act of The Skinsaw Murders

When I was a kid, one of the local stations liked to rerun certain features at certain times of year.  We had It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas, The Wizard of Oz in the spring, and around October, we got Dark Night of the Scarecrow.  I had always assumed that Scarecrow was a movie that was rebroadcast from a theatrical release, but it turns out that it was a made-for-TV feature that simply got dusted off and brought back out occasionally.  Also, it was apparently one of the first ‘killer scarecrow’ movies ever made, attracting a number of quality imitations over the intervening years from its premiere in 1981.

The second act of Skinsaw starts with a ‘killer scarecrow’ adventure, as a lead-up to the haunted house scenario, and given my adoration of Dark Night of the Scarecrow as an impressionable child, I was suitably thrilled.

This is not to say that it makes a whole lot of sense in how it fits into the broad scope of the campaign, mind you, but that’s just sort of a given at this point.  The last section ended with the characters confronting this module’s version of Renfield to Foxglove’s erstwhile Dracula, with the fairly obvious clue that they need to head in the direction of the old Foxglove Manor, as that’s where the murders are originating from.

This may just be me, but my assumption is usually that, if the players know where they need to go next, they’re going to be packing their stuff and heading off in that direction.  I don’t assume that they’re going to be hanging around the Sheriff’s office, waiting to see if any more work comes their way in the mean time.  And yet, that’s pretty much what the module assumes is going to be the sequence of events.

I guess I could allow for the Sheriff stopping the player characters as they saddle up to head out of town, but that almost makes the Sheriff that much more incompetent in his methodology.  “Oh, by the way, it just occurred to me that maybe someone should investigate these murders over here first.  I mean, you guys went off to investigate these murders at the Sawmill, right?  And then those murders that happened outside of town, too.  So, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble…”  (It doesn’t help that the Sheriff admits that he hasn’t had any luck with any of the suspects and relies on the PC’s to actually get anything done.)

This hook comes in the form of Farmer Grump.

Yeah.  Seriously.  It’s his actual name, not the moniker that’s been foisted upon him by local kids.  And he’s portrayed as being a drunken lout whose inane babbling keys him as either outright crazy or so inebriated as to be a little more than a public nuisance.  Naturally, the Sheriff takes his story completely seriously and sends the PC’s out to see what all has happened.

This is the point where I think the red herrings should just simply take over this Adventure Path.  An old drunkard comes shambling into town, talking about scarecrows that walk?  Sure, send a team.  The little girl down by the river thinks she’s seen a dragon swimming upstream?  Send the PC’s to look around.  The old woman on the edge of town that has 27 cats and talks about ‘the eyes in the woods’ that are coming to steal her butter churn?  Have a character or two spend the night.

So anyway, the old drunk finds his way into town, spins a meandering tale about how he saw the walking scarecrows eat the neighbor’s dog, and the Sheriff panics, sending the characters off to learn the truth.  Of course, there’s nothing in the way of distortion or prevarication in the old drunk’s story, so the reality actually has walking scarecrows that eat dogs.

I think my problem with the residents of Sandpoint is that they’re so dreadfully earnest.

The adventure itself is very well done, to the point that it has a lot of traumatic potential.  The characters are sent to a remote farm outside of Sandpoint that has been taken over by ghouls.  The underlying plotline is that Lord Foxglove, the NPC that was introduced in the first module, has become a ghast that is busily sacrificing people for a far greater purpose.  He’s behind all of the recent murders around Sandpoint, and he’d made a point of killing a number of people in these local farms.  Naturally, they rose as ghouls and have been making trouble since.

What makes this adventure so wonderfully horrific is that the ghouls that have taken over these farms have started seriously playing with expectations.  Some of the victims have been strung up on frames to serve as scarecrows as they transform into ghouls.  This means that the PC’s will encounter them as undead, murderous scarecrows that attack if anyone gets too close.  It also means that, if the characters get a little too proactive in dealing with these particular abominations, they’ll end up killing the still living victims as they struggle to free themselves from the ropes that have suspended them on the frames.

You can guess what happened with our particular playing group.

As it turned out, the Ranger that was rapidly succumbing to Wrath started chopping down the suspected ghouls as we encountered them.  Most were ghouls, some were just straw-filled mannequins, and one was … well, it bled when it was cut down.  And the GM made certain that he realized the import of his actions.  The other characters publicly reassured him that there was no way he could have known the difference and that they didn’t blame him for what happened, but privately they knew that it was only a matter of time before the character’s self-loathing started to overtake him.

So all in all, it worked very well.

This section has a number of extra hooks to move the action in any number of separate directions, from a number of other locales offered in the original module to a sort of ‘zombie attack’ scenario for Sandpoint, where the various victims rise as ghouls to lay waste to the town.  There are some pretty inspired ideas, but in the end, they’re just ways to delay getting to the old haunted house that the characters need to deal with sooner or later.

Once again, I think this would have been better suited were it to happen earlier in the module, since it serves mainly to heighten the tension and crawling horror about what’s coming next.  Being that it happens immediately after the characters have a clue as to where they need to go next, it just feels like they’re being delayed from finding a solution to the problems that are plaguing their home town.  Were I to run this, I’d likely have it happen before they got to the sanitarium, as the interview they manage to have there is far too important to happen until they’re ready to brave the horrors of Foxglove Manor.

As a minor correction, I’ve been basing much of my review off the Anniversary Edition of Rise of the Runelords, which has some supplemental material.  The original module spent very little time in the sanitarium, with the new revision adding enough extra plot to make the place large enough to spend a session or so investigating.  While I like the new plotline of the sanitarium and its necromancer in the basement, there aren’t a lot of new hooks to ensure that the player characters actually end up finding out what’s going on.  In fact, there’s a good chance that it would play out in much the same way that the original module did.